Climate pact appears increasingly fragile; U.N. official quits

By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Just two months after patching together a climate deal in Copenhagen, the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are trying to figure out how to keep the fragile accord together, while the United Nations, which has played a central part in 15 rounds of climate talks, seems destined for a smaller role in the future.

Nearly 100 nations, including the United States, South Africa and Brazil, have endorsed the Copenhagen Accord. But China and India have yet to formally sign off on it, and sources close to Chinese officials say they are balking at sensitive points dealing with transparency and monitoring, even as they vow to press ahead with limits on the growth of their emissions in the next decade.

Meanwhile, a domestic political stalemate in the United States could make it challenging for the Obama administration to deliver on pledges to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"Some countries are holding back, I think, because they question whether the very positive provisions in the accord will actually get implemented," Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, said in an interview Thursday. "My message to them is that the only way to have an impact on that is to engage, to become part of the accord and to try to make sure it does get implemented in the right way."

Pessimism about global climate talks deepened Thursday as Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' top climate official, resigned after struggling for 3 1/2 years to produce a binding legal treaty requiring the world's major emitters of greenhouse gases to slash their carbon output in the coming decades. He will step down July 1 with that goal unmet.

"It was a difficult decision to make, but I believe the time is ripe for me to take on a new challenge," said de Boer, who will join the consulting group KPMG as an adviser on climate and sustainability and also work with several universities.

Many observers saw de Boer's resignation as recognition that the U.N. role had been overtaken by the big emitting nations, which hammered out the accord at the last minute in Copenhagen.

"It's a death knell for the U.N. process," said Frank Maisano, a lobbyist on energy issues at Bracewell & Giuliani. "It's clear now that you're going to have to solve this issue through agreements with major emitters."

"What Copenhagen did in my mind was put to bed the notion that there will be a global binding treaty that sets targets," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a China expert who has been tracking climate talks. Instead, he said, countries would try to "develop mutual trust that will enhance their willingness to do more rather than less."

Negotiators will meet again in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year to try to hammer out a treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol when the first period of that climate pact expires in two years. Mexican negotiators are trying to organize a preliminary session in April. Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, who met this month in Mexico with key officials, said, "There was a sense that this could be salvaged."

But the procedural and substantive questions that stymied the talks in Copenhagen remain unresolved. The agreement there was not legally binding, as some countries had hoped. Instead both industrialized and major developing nations agreed to make voluntary cuts in emissions by 2020, while richer nations vowed to give $100 billion to help poorer ones cope with climate change.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that a legally binding treaty is not in the cards for Cancun," said Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's not that people have problems with the direction in which they're going. People aren't quite sure what direction they're going in at all."

In India, many senior officials opposed the commitments made at Copenhagen. In Beijing, the talks reignited debate over whether China has responsibilities for the global common good that go beyond its own economic interests, Lieberthal said.

Mark Levine, co-founder of the China energy group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said Chinese leaders and planners were debating whether to set a target of a 15 or 20 percent reduction in energy intensity by 2015, either one of which would meet Copenhagen commitments.

But on transparency and the international monitoring of projects, "I'm far less optimistic," he said. "The Chinese are inherently not transparent."

In a speech last week, Stern said statements by China, India, Brazil and South Africa "evince a desire to limit the impact of the accord." He warned that the United States does not believe that the accord's "provisions can be cherry-picked, since, like any meaningful agreement, it represents a balance -- not just financing but transparency; not just mitigation by all major economies but technology assistance and dissemination."

But some developing countries say the accord is not ambitious enough to meet its goal of limiting global temperature rise this century to 2 degrees Celsius.

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